STEPHENVILLE (September 3, 2017) – At Tarleton State University, students learn what it means to be part of a community of like-minded individuals, to be part of a family, and at the center of it all is the president of the university. Fifteenth president Dr. Dominic Dottavio lives and breathes for the community of Tarleton State University. He works every day to ensure that Tarleton carries out the vision of being “the premier student-focused university in Texas and beyond.”
“I see my primary job is to try to keep people focused on that broad vision statement and to keep them focused on assuring that we provide the highest quality education and educational environments possible for our students,” Dottavio said.
This mission has been a long time coming for Dottavio. He never expected to end up as a university president. Dottavio grew up in Massillon, Ohio in what he described as a “typical Midwest town” with a “small town atmosphere.”
“I grew up in a working-class home with a father that worked in steel mills and the post office most of his life and a mother that worked at the Hoover Company,” Dottavio said. “It was part of the country that was very focused on football because we grew up about five miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and in a community that has one of the most historic and long running rivalries- between the Massillon Tigers and Canton Bulldogs.”
Dottavio credits the fact that he attended college to his friend group, whose parents expected them to attend college, and a neighbor, Robert McLain, who mentored him.
“Coming from a family that had no one who had attended college, it certainly was going to be an unusual twist,” Dottavio said. “[McLain and I] had significant conversations about what the future might be and how to achieve some things. He really strongly encouraged me to go to college and to see something bigger than continuing to work in a steel mill or something like that.”
Dottavio attended college at Ohio State University and majored in Natural Resource Management. He chose this field of study after working at a tree nursery where he realized the importance of the environment.
“Coming from an area of the country where there was not a significant amount of natural area, I didn’t really understand the importance of those areas growing up,” Dottavio said. “It was only after having a job that connected me with [undeveloped land] that I began to truly appreciate the importance of environmental and resource conservationists.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Dottavio attended Yale and earned his master’s degree in environmental studies. Again Dottavio was encouraged to do so by his mentor McLain and faculty members at Ohio State University.
“It wasn’t just an automatic response that I should continue to go on to college,” Dottavio said. “As it turned out, [Yale] was a marvelous opportunity and the best couple of years of my life were spent at Yale.”
Earning a doctoral degree was not on Dottavio’s radar after completing his master’s degree. He began looking for jobs and accepted a position teaching in the school of forestry and natural resources at Purdue University.
“[Purdue] contacted me and said as part of a position at Purdue, what they would like me to consider was becoming a part-time student while working at the university,” Dottavio said. “So I ended up doing the Ph.D. really while working and going to school at the same time.”
Dottavio met his wife Dr. Lisette Dottavio while studying in the same department at Purdue University. They married in 1979.
“It will be 37 years on December 1,” Dottavio said.
After completing his degree, Dottavio went on to work for the Center for Natural Areas in Washington DC and then as the chief scientist of the Southeast Region for the National Parks Service. Dottavio only began thinking about returning to the academic community while working for the National Park Service.
“In my mind, many of the issues we addressed in the parks service and the way we tried to collect information for many of the issues we were working through the university systems, having students participate in projects and faculty members provide research,” Dottavio said. “The ability to work with those universities on significant environmental issues prompted me to think that [going back to the university system] was something I should really begin to think about.”
Dottavio then worked as the Chief Executive Officer at Ohio State University in Marion, Ohio and as a professor in the Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences College. He then moved on to his first presidency at Heidelberg University in Ohio.
“When I was president of Heidelberg, someone specifically asked me about moving on to another position, and I said to them I was very happy at Heidelberg and that it was my intention to remain there,” Dottavio said. “Kind of as an afterthought I said, ‘The only place I would think about going is to Texas.'”
Then came the opportunity to become president of Tarleton State University. Dottavio applied and became the president of Tarleton in 2008.
“[Tarleton] has a very good reputation across the country in colleges of agriculture,” Dottavio said. “It is highly regarded as a place that produces very good agricultural teachers in a place that has always had a strong program affiliated with agricultural-related sciences.”
Today, Dottavio works in a variety of different functions every day. Dottavio said that the best description of his role is that “there is no typical day.” Within a week, Dottavio has traveled to Austin, worked on the accreditation for the electrical engineering program, handled construction issues and attended many student events.
“On a day in and day out basis, I take great joy in seeing the remarkable things that [students] accomplish,” Dottavio said. “Watching students and faculty interact to help the students achieve their dreams in enormously rewarding.”
Once Dottavio’s day is done, he does not leave the university and go home. He and his wife live in the historic Trogden House practically in the center of campus.
“I feel extraordinarily privileged to live in such a historic structure,” Dottavio said. “I would tell you the students are absolutely terrific about that being the place where we live. They do visit occasionally, primarily for things like scavenger hunts. Sometimes they’re coming by looking for help. One time it was to help rescue some baby squirrels.”
Dottavio and his wife spend their free time exploring national parks, visiting cultural sites and visiting their children and grandchildren.
“We have the opportunity to see them every couple of months,” Dottavio said.
Despite the natural challenges that come with running a university, Dottavio believes it’s all worth it.
“At the end of every day, what you hope you’re doing is advancing the success of our students because that truly is what everybody should be focused on,” Dottavio said.